Monday, August 11, 2014

Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: A Review of Commentary

Whenever I plan to write an analysis of a certain literary subject, I always do a "review of the literature," checking to see what other critics and reviewers have said about the subject I am undertaking.  It is a result of old graduate school training that has stayed with me for fifty years (I started graduate school in 1963 at the age of 22).  I always encouraged my students—graduate and undergraduate--to do the same when they wrote papers for my classes, for I told them that there was absolutely no point in their writing an analysis or interpretation that just repeated what someone else had already discovered or devised. 

So, I offer in this week's blog post the results of my review of the literature on Alice Munro's collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  Most of it comes from reviews published in newspapers and magazines when the book was published in 2001, for it often takes at least ten to twelve years after a work appears for academic critics to get around to writing and publishing a full-length analytical paper of said work.

In what follows, I will cite those critical comments that I think might be helpful—those that support my argument, those that serve as straw men/women with whom I can argue, those that provide me with thought-provoking ideas I can further develop. After each citation, I will make a brief comment on how I might use the comment:

John McGahern, "Heroines of Their Lives." Times Literary Supplement. Nov. 9, 2001. PP. 23-24.
Any time an important fellow writer reviews a book, I pay particular attention, because it has been my experience that other writers are much more perceptive about good short stories than newspaper reviewers, who often underrate the form.

McGahern says, "I know of nobody who writes as well as Munro about 'the hardhearted energy of sex.'" He says in Hateship, desire has become "in part, memory and reflection." He says the "marvel of the volume" is "Floating Bridge."

Me: What is it about sex that Munro writes about?   Although the physical is important, sex is something more in her stories.  It seems to have some to do with the nature of desire, but more than orgasmic desire. Sex has something to do with freedom or control. Desire is not just something you do, but something you think about and something you recall. It always seems to be more important in the past and in the future than in the present.  Why does McGahern like "Floating Bridge" so much?  It has something to do with the importance of metaphor, I think, and the complexity of the story's theme and its stylistic restraint.

Mona Simpson. "A Quiet Genius." Review of HateshipThe Atlantic Monthly Dec. 2001: 126-35.
Mona Simpson, like most writers,  admires Munro's fiction. Although  she says it has the simplicity of the best naturalism "in that it seems not translated from life but, rather, like life itself," she says "at the heart of all great naturalism is mystery, an emotional sum greater than its technical parts."

Me: How is this possible? If a fiction focuses on the physical surface of things, how can it be mystery, greater than the sum of its parts. Only mystery if there is some sense that inherent in the physical there is meaning.  Marina Warner talks about the mystery of "things" in Arabian Nights.

Simpson quotes the writer Allan Gurganus who said "Munro is our greatest and most subtle surrealist. The plainest of surfaces ignite with the fugitive erotic undertow.  After sex, even a readymade supermarket lemon cake can feel like a miracle." Simpson adds: "The shock and credibility of the sexuality (alluded to more than rendered) derives –like Chekhov's—from its absurd, yet dead serious, collisions with the mundane, tactile elements of her characters' lives."
Me:  There is something quite paradoxical about sexuality in Chekhov and Munro, something incongruous about the triviality of its physicality and the excessive power it has over those possessed by it. What is a fugitive erotic undertow? What does sex do?

Simpson says the title story is a "love story, perhaps the hardest spell to cast in 2001." "It is as though Munro has set for herself the challenge of writing credible love stories for a culture that usually satisfies its romantic cravings at the movies and turns to fiction for the hard, ugly truth about marriage."

Me: I like this, for while I agree that the title story is a love story, it is  surely an unlikely love story, given its central characters—grotesque Romeo and Juliet and a devious teenage Iago—and then ending, ironically, not as melodrama or tragedy or pathos, but comedy.  Can there be such a thing as an accidental love story?
Simpson says there is something she has always hoped for in fiction that has no literary term but is best explained by an analogy.  She notes a painting by Degas of a woman drying herself after a bath with one foot on the rim of the tub, her body leaning over.  "Seeing that image, one might recognize a human position common in life but never before seen through the bending lens of representation… Munro gives us such recognitions."

Me:  This is very good, for it gets to the heart of the mystery of art.  It has something  to do with an ordinary gesture that is caught in such a way as to embody its essential form.  We see it, although we have never seen it before, we recognize it, for it is not its content or "stuff" that makes it alive, but its form, its gestalt in space—things coming together in an inevitable way that makes it feel that it had to be just that way and no other way.

Lorrie Moore," "Artship." The New York Review of Books. Jan. 7, 2002, pp. 41-42.
Moore says: "The birth and death of erotic love, and the strange places people are led to because of it…is Munro's timeless subject."  She says that Munro knows that the "arranging of love…and the seismic upheavals of its creation and dismantling…is both a kind of pornography of life as well as the very truth of it: it is often the most pervasive and defining force in the shape of individual existence and individual fate." She says one of her signature themes is "the random, permanent fate brought about by an illusion of love."  She says title story is an example of this theme.

Me: Lorie Moore is still another fine writer who greatly admires Munro's stories. I am glad that she singles out erotic love as the central Munro subject and that she recognizes that Munro is fascinated by the "illusion" of love. What is an illusion of love?  All romantic/erotic  love is an illusion, isn't it? It is most powerful at its beginning and at its end.  In between, there is often merely reality.

Gail Caldwell, Review of Hateship.  The Boston Globe. Nov. 4, 2001, p. C3.
"She is so thoroughly a master of both structure and plot that the crafting of the work is nearly invisible; he stories often feel like effortless, half-conscious slides into another universe."

Me:  The theme of the sometimes wrenching shift into Another Country is a common one in the short story. It is a common observation that Munro's stories are so well-crafted that they seem like no craft all—the essence of art being the concealment of the art.

Sebastian Smee, Review of Hateship. Prospect. Oct. 25, 2001.
Smee says Munro's "great theme is sex. No one alive writes as well on the vicissitudes—the pleasures and aches—of relationship between men and women, nor with such a balance of detachment and compassion."  "For Alice Munro, desire is never just unruly and destructive.  It is also expansive, creating room for experience."

Me: When you think about sex, sex loses its riotous passion, and becomes an object of contemplation—Wordsworth's recollections in tranquility. Love stories are usually told by one of the lovers when the story is over—death, desertion, etc. Or else it is told by a sympathetic or envious observer.  Seldom is it told by one of the lovers in the very midst of the passion, for there is really little one can say about the passion, except when one can recall it.

Michael Ravitch, "Fiction in Review." Oct. 2002, vol. 90, Issue 4. Pp. 16070.
Ravitch says, Munro's stories attain the strangeness and exhilaration of perfectly realized dreams." He says she "embraces all that her contemporaries repudiated: exposition and analysis, plot and character….Yet while her concerns may be old-fashioned and humanistic, Munro is also an acute aesthete.  Her narratives are as elusive as they are satisfying."

Me: The questions is:  how can the stories be so realistic and so fantastic at once?  Carver did it by paring down; Munro does it by amplifying.  How? How are the stories surreal and yet real at once?  This is only possible by transforming the real into an aesthetic object, a formal structure that means something.
Ravitch says the drama in her stories is not merely in what happened, but in how it is remembered and explained." 

Me: Yes, this is true; Munro says the same thing—"how" things are recalled and how the story is told.
Ravitch says: "Her cardinal principle is surprise. She plays with exposition as other writers might play with sentences, always coming up with new ways to perform the trick of concealment and discovery. Just when we  think we have understood the story line, the narrative emphasis shifts, logically and yet magically. The stories seem spacious at first, organically growing, digressing down haphazard paths.  And yet, by the end, all the disparate elements have been fused in rigorous and meaningful ways." "Her stories are like spokes on a wheel, stretching out in all directions at once, opening themselves up to an endless range of interpretation.  Their rich ambiguity converts them from mere fact into fable." 

Me: This is a key concept What is ambiguity in a Munro story?  Something that is not seen clearly, something that could be one thing and at the same time another thing.  When this happens, the thing becomes an object of contemplation and thus an element in an art work, part of a formal pattern, a gesture, a thematic suggestion. Munro's characters wish to remove themselves from the everyday.. Ultimately it does not matter if that "other country" they seek is true or false, real or fantasy. Randall Jarrell once said, we have to reckon with what is true and dreams are true also.

Ravitch says: "What most interests Munro about adultery is the drama of the self-divided." Says her women do not swallow arsenic or thrown themselves under trains but find new sources of happiness; "their imaginations sustain them." "One thing Alice Munro teaches is to interrogate stories, always to ask: What is the motive for speaking?  She presents storytelling as an act of power, an assertion of meaning, a way of taking control of ourselves or other people." 

Me:  Ravitch's review is the best review I have found of the collection Hateship.  I might go back and take another look at the psychologist R. D. Laing about the divided self theme, for I found it helpful in an essay I once did on Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." He is right in noting that Munro's women are not like Anna Karenna or Emma Bovary; they are too smart for that, too imaginative.  And he is also right, I think, about how important the power of storytelling is for Alice Munro.

Ann Beattie,  "Alice Munro's Amazingly Ordinary World." The Globe and Mail [Toronto, Ont] 29 Sep 2001: D.2.
Beattie says, Munro's" selectivity and her ability to transform something mundane into metaphor are truly astonishing.  Beattie adds that Munro's accomplishment "is to make the ordinary magical: tree limbs, rocks and water almost alarm us by their viscerally tactile quality. Under her delicate touch, they are transformed; as we connect, we are drawn in to deeper meanings, as in a fairy tale."

Me: Beattie makes a valuable point here.  Too often we try to read Munro's stories as if they were realistic, as if "stuff" in them were merely stuff to stub your toe on.  But instead, like the stories in Arabian Nights, they are magical and metaphoric and meaningful. 

David Crouse, "Honest Tricks: Surrogate Authors in Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage." In Critical Insights: Alice Munro, ed. Charles E. May. Salem Press, 2013. Pp. 228-41. 
Crouse says: "Munro deemphasizes physical action in favor of the mind in action. In her stories, the central action is almost always the act of perception itself; other actions, what we might normally consider to be the plot, are subsumed or transformed to this end." He argues that her techniques run counter to those used by other realistic writers.  In fact, he says, her stories are also indebted to those of John Barth and Robert Coover in the sixties who made the process of writing their subject. He argues that one of the central conflicts in Hateship is the "conflict between reality and meta-reality, the authentic and the manufactured." He says her narratives are often  in conflict with each other, "possessed of a designed messiness that asks the reader to assemble them, jigsaw-like." 

Me: I think Crouse is right to "correct" our usual assumption that Munro's stories are simple realism, rather than self-reflexive explorations of storytelling itself. He most convincingly argues that in the title story, Edith, the young girl who engineers the lying letters to Johanna, is actually a "surrogate" author of Johanna's story and that her plot succeeds only because she grows more empathetic with Johanna.  I agree.  Johanna's story is created by Edith, much as Othello's story is created by Iago. You don't have to love the neighbor as your self to "know" the neighbor as if he or she were yourself. Johanna's story is "created" by Edith's storytelling.

Next Week:

Time to talk about the five stories from Hateship I have chosen to write about.


Hendra said...


Anonymous said...

Much more than "nice." I've taught and led discussions on the stories in HFCLM, and I found this blog terrific (much better than nice). I think this blogger is a man who really gets Munro (Franzen is another). I too love the short story, and now that I'm retired, I lead discussions mostly on them (Chekhov, Cheever, of course Munro.

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